Brasilia, Brazil - OlÃ¡ from the capital of Brazil! (I had to drop the "h" when I flew in from Chile). My short South American trip is in full swing, and my head is spinning -- counter-clockwise, of course.
The thing that has turned my head is not the north-south dichotomy but the way the familiar political line between left and right is blurred down here. Again and again I've been struck with the ways that Chile and Brazil, the two countries I'm visiting on this trip, have, on key issues, transcended the tired division between left and right the United States seems hopelessly mired in.
This isn't to say, of course, that the traditional political spectrum has magically ceased to exist down here, but both countries have narrowed the range of issues to be hashed out in the left/right sandbox and widened the range of issues that have become part of the national agenda -- beyond partisan gamesmanship. This is the exact opposite of what has been going on in the United States.
In the U.S., there is now hardly an issue that is exempt from the toxic left/right battles -- not even a bill to take care of the health of 9/11 first responders.
And in contrast to the assumption sweeping Washington that, as Tom Friedman put it, "America is only able to produce 'suboptimal' responses to its biggest problems," at virtually every stop on my South American trip I've encountered the can-do optimism that has for centuries been at the heart of the American dream.
It reinforced the feeling that a country's spirit has less to do with absolute conditions on the ground than with the perception of whether things are getting better or worse. And in Chile and Brazil, the perception is that things are definitely getting better. Indeed, a 2009 Gallup study found that Chileans and Brazilians expect that their lives five years from now will be significantly better than their lives today.
Chile is led by a president from the right, Brazil by a president from the left. But both have transcended stereotypes and shibboleths in order to tackle hard problems.
The first stop on my trip was Santiago, Chile, where I interviewed President SebastiÃ¡n PiÃ±era. PiÃ±era is a first in many ways -- most obviously, he's the first right-wing president Chileans have elected in the two decades since Pinochet. He's a billionaire; the third richest man in Chile; a former professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard whose thesis was entitled "The Economics of Education in Developing Countries"; and he relaxes by, among other things, skydiving and flying helicopters.
We are only a few minutes into our interview in the blue room outside his office, dominated by a huge painting by the Chilean surrealist Matta, when he tells me: "By the end of this decade, we want Chile to be the first country in South America to have eliminated poverty, to have closed the gap in income between rich and poor, and to be recognized as a developed -- not a developing -- economy." A moment later, he adds: "Instead of just talking about poverty, we are working to defeat it. I always say, 'judge us on our results and achievements, not on our intentions.'"
To produce those results, he is putting more resources into overhauling his country's education system. "Nothing is more important," he told me. "We will win the battle against poverty in the classroom."
PiÃ±era's urgency is accentuated by the knowledge that, in keeping with Chile's constitution, he can only serve one term at a time. When, in a conversation with his wife Cecilia Morel at lunch the following day, I remark on his intensity, the First Lady laughs: "Yes, I know. I've lived with it every day for 37 years! He recharges by working. I, on the other hand, need silence and time by myself."
PiÃ±era took office on the heels of a catastrophe. His inauguration came less than two weeks after the devastating February 2010 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 500 Chileans, leveled or severely damaged 4,000 schools, and left 2 million Chileans homeless. PiÃ±era tried to put the devastation in perspective for me. "The economic damage is equal to 18 percent of Chile's gross domestic product," he said. "In comparison, the cost of Katrina was less than one percent of America's GDP."
Pinera responded to the crisis with what the Economist called "a frenzy of activity." He is especially proud of the fact that, as he had promised, within two months of the quake, all 1.2 million schoolchildren affected by the quake were able to resume classes. "Some of the children," he told me, "were studying in makeshift classrooms inside tents, police stations, and churches -- often in split shifts. But they were all back at school."
Seven months later, 33 miners became trapped in the San Jose mine -- a twist of fate that tested his leadership and became a defining moment for his country and his presidency.
In the beginning, his advisers told him to keep his distance from the disaster, lest he be too closely connected to what was almost certainly going to be a tragic outcome. But PiÃ±era disregarded their advice, listening instead to what, in uncharacteristic language for a head of state, he describes as "my inner voice." And he attacked the crisis with his signature verve. When his experts offered him three different strategies for rescuing the trapped miners, he ordered them to do all three at the same time. "That," he told me, "is what I would do if it were my children in the mine."
The triumphant rescue has helped rebrand Chile and PiÃ±era. When I talked with rescued Chilean miner #21 Yonni Barrios (he was the one with the wife and mistress both holding vigil outside the mine), he said of the president: "I didn't vote for PiÃ±era, but if he were running again I definitely would. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be alive." I later asked Barrios what his New Year's resolution is. "I don't make New Year's resolutions anymore. I take life one hour at a time."
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